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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Natalia ZABOLOTNA is Den’s Person of the Year 2011

“The world should know about art renaissance in Ukraine”
17 January, 2012 - 00:00

In 2009 and 2010 Den/The Day awarded Person of the Year, respectively, to those who we think undeservedly escaped the attention of our colleagues and the public: Anatolii Kvasiuk who had been performing “a quiet feat,” restoring the invaluable 11th-12th-century Kholm Icon of the Holy Virgin, and Mykola Khriienko who carried out his research project, Ukrainians beyond the Urals, thus proving to the media environment that Ukraine does have a school of journalism. This time, in 2011, we chose a well-known public individual as Person of the Year.

Yes, the attitude to Natalia Zabolotna, director general of the Mystetsky Arsenal, is contradictory – from rapture to incomprehension. But, given the wide scale of her activities, it is normal. She is clearly a person endowed with a high cultural level, managerial skills, and, not in the least, efficiency. After all, Zabolotna will always – at least for us – remain a person who managed to transform a Lenin museum into a modern-day cultural precedent. You will agree that it is quite an achievement.

The impression is that our space lacks not only culture, esthetics, and taste, coupled with managerial skills, but also some simple “arithmetic operations,” such as civility, respect for each other, and, after all, repaired utility lines and collected garbage. When asked once how she managed to heat the vast (50,000 square meters) Mystetsky Arsenal, Zabolotna said she had just replaced pipes. She began her directorship at the – let us say the truth – scandal-rocked Mystetsky Arsenal 18 months ago with not only lofty words but also the above-mentioned “arithmetic operations,” i.e., repairing the roof, floor and walls, replacing drainpipes, etc.

Mystetsky Arsenal is getting ready for a grandiose event – the first ARSENALE, a Kyiv-based international biennale of modern art, which is expected to vividly display Ukraine’s art ambitions on the international arena and, what is more, inside this country, where art began, incidentally, thousands of years ago with Scythian stone women.

In her interviews, Zabolotna often quotes Johann Miller, a well-known German architect, who said after designing what is now the Mystetsky Arsenal almost 300 years ago: “It will take everybody many years to understand that I built this Arsenal for people, not for weapons.”

Or, maybe, it was built for the current world’s most effective weapon, the weapon of identity which we are regaining thanks to, among other things, the Mystetsky Arsenal.

In an interview with Den/The Day, Natalia Zabolotna, Person of the Year 2011, focuses on the principle of a museum-dialogue and tells our readers for the first time (!) about the future participants in the ARSENALE.

“It was a dynamic year for the Mystetsky Arsenal. We implemented 12 large-scale art projects in the period between Art Kyiv Contemporary 2010 and Art Kyiv Contemporary 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the Arsenal.

“Some people say that art-related work is the best thing to dream of. This is true, but one must also work very hard in this field, of which far from all are capable. We do not receive plans, we are not required to submit reports, but we are doing our best. This year the Mystetsky Arsenal worked as if it were a student who tried to pass an exam. We hope now that the ‘exam’ will work for us.

“I look at all our projects from several angles. Firstly, what matters for me is the opinion of the exhibit’s curator, experts, and art researchers. Secondly, I always try to look at the exhibit from the viewpoint of our visitors who should see new interesting projects every time they come over. And, thirdly, it is always important to look at the project through the eyes of Ukrainian bureaucrats, in the opinion of most of whom, unfortunately, modern art does not exist at all as a phenomenon. Incidentally, it seems to me that this bureaucratic bias has essentially affected the development of modern Ukrainian culture. Why does a Ministry-of-Culture-funded festival always have to be traditional? I don’t think an Eiffel Tower could be ever built in this country, for we are always afraid of innovations. Or take Pompidou Center museum… It has a unique history. French President Georges Pompidou had long been thinking on what to do with the plot of land, where those who died of terrible diseases had been buried for centuries. Finally, he announced a competition for the project of a museum which would fit the city’s architectural style and be no taller than the traditional Parisian buildings. Those who won the competition were young and unconventional architects who were keenly aware of the spirit of the time and the city’s esthetic needs and, as if mocking at the employers, offered a project in which everything was just the contrary: a tall brilliant structure full of plate-glass. Pompidou preferred this project. Now this museum is a universally-known brand, the world’s leading art center annually visited by over six million tourists! The same applies to the famous Louvre, once Emperor Napoleon’s gift to the French people. I mean that it is up to emperors, presidents, and other socially conscious personalities to build museums and present them with collections.”

In your interviews, you often mention China as a role model state that supports its art. And, browsing the website of the journal you founded (artukraine.com.ua), I came across the pictures of a really fantastic Chinese museum recently built in the town Ordos somewhere in Inner Mongolia. I wonder how communist parades and super-modern museums go hand in hand in China… Have you ever pondered this?

“Indeed, the ‘Chinese phenomenon’ is the subject of a worldwide debate. When China picked up a fast economic speed, it began to actively buy up ancient Chinese art throughout the world. Auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, opened their branches in China. And last year a well-known art forum, Art Basel, came to that country to buy out the Hong Kong Art Fair. Why? Because China has drawn up a governmental program that envisages the construction of 5,000 museums between 2010 and 2015. And this plan is being carried out! Two thirds of these museums display modern art. China is spending enormous money to make the most popular world brand out of its own modern art.

“Some people, especially old guard gurus, are reproaching me for allegedly intending to make a modern art museum out of the Mystetsky Arsenal. But we want the Mystetsky Arsenal to be one of the world’s most modern museums. And these are entirely different things. We want the people who have visited this place to be saying: ‘We live in a wonderful country with a very rich history and talented modern artists!’ We must make a legend out of our art, which will capture the world. The Mystetsky Arsenal will embrace a 10,000-year history of Ukrainian art. I agree this sounds daring. I wanted to ‘throw the stone’ still farther but was immediately showered with ‘historical reproaches.’

“A museum is not only history. The Mystetsky Arsenal, the way we imagine it, is a symbiosis of different periods and trends of Ukrainian art, world-famous masterpieces, and innovational technologies. We intend to establish a large electronic library at the museum and launch an extensive educational program (we are holding talks on this point with the above-mentioned Pompidou Center). We are also laying the groundwork for the Mystetsky Arsenal-based art school.

“A museum should be modern and interesting no matter what it is devoted to – sacral art, area studies, or history. It should attract children, who are using cutting-edge gadgets every day, and speak to them in a language they understand. In general, Ukrainian museums should change their key function – from custody of art to dialogue. It is a challenge of time, not my fantasy. Besides, there should be no pure ideology in culture. The main thing is not to let esthetics drown in ideology.”

You say we must get rid of ideology, but I can remember the Louvre recently hosting a six-month-long exhibit, Holy Russia, which was funded by Gazprom and positioned as an exhibit of ancient Russian art, including Kyivan Rus’ icons and a fresco from our Church of the Tithes. So the museum space still remains for us, to a large extent, a “battlefield” for our history and identity. What is your vision of the Mystetsky Arsenal’s role in this respect?

“I must say the Russians worked very well on this project. The Louvre is somewhat embarrassed even today. I spoke with them. They are even prepared to launch a joint cultural project with Ukraine. And we must seize this opportunity. For I am a patriot: I even say to my husband (member of parliament): it is all up to you, I have no right to dictate you anything, I am only asking you for two things: do not vote for capital punishment because this is a prerogative of the Almighty and for [Russian as] a second official language because Ukrainian is perhaps our only linchpin. Clearly, geopolitical circumstances have never been favorable to us. Ukraine was considered for a long time as sort of a village on the outskirts of a megalopolis. The best used to move to Moscow to study or to assume top offices. This also applied, to a large extent, to fine arts. We do not have an Hermitage or a Metropolitan Museum of our own because there was nobody to initiate or to build one. So it is great that we have at last a chance to present Ukraine, which has always been losing its best (I recently noticed, much to my chagrin, that the world’s two most famous museums called the Kyiv-born Kazimir Malevich a Russian artist), with something grandiose that can be on a par with worldwide-acclaimed museums. A hundred years later nobody will drop even a line about many present-day politicians and public figures, but those caring for Ukrainian artists and involved in establishing the Mystetsky Arsenal will undoubtedly be remembered. I am thoroughly convinced that to support the Mystetsky Arsenal is the same as get a ticket to eternity.

“Now we are negotiating the display of some world art masterpieces in Ukraine. This kind of cooperation can materialize as soon as 2015. And it is absolutely possible to redouble our efforts and open an updated museum by 2014.

“Incidentally, the world is very actively reacting to the appearance of one of Europe’s largest museums in a rather poor and ill-reputed country. Foreign journalists often ask me whether it is too expensive and untimely. But, you know, there have never been good times in Ukraine. And, although there have been social cataclysms in, say, France and Britain, they have been building museums in all times, in all centuries.

“The problem of our art is also in that it has never passed through foreign museums and is very little known in the world. It would be good if the key visits of our leading politicians – the president and the prime minister – were accompanied with major art projects, such as exhibits of artworks by classic, well-known, time-tested, as well as young and conceptual artists.”

Incidentally, has the president visited you yet?

“Unfortunately, the president of Ukraine has not yet been here, but the president of Poland has. He extremely liked the Mystetsky Arsenal.”

In a recent interview with Russky reporter, the well-known dissident Vladimir Voinovich said: “I had esthetic differences with the Soviet authorities.” It is about esthetics. Esthetics is really important and… effective. Do you think you managed to “shake up” bureaucrats?

“It was at first very difficult to convince them that the Mystetsky Arsenal must work right now. Theory didn’t work. What really mattered was the Arsenal’s extremely active performance and queues to the Grand Sculptural Salon which exhibited, for the first time in Ukraine, a collection of Edgar Degas’ sculptures, to contemporary art forums, to the unexpected Book Arsenal and ART Kyiv… There is a rush of visitors now. Naturally, not all of them know about certain art trends, but the Arsenal leaves nobody indifferent. For it is common knowledge that genuine art asks, not answers, questions. Many of our compatriots are unaware of wonderful works by Ukrainian artists, which have been kept for decades in the depositories of central and provincial museums. The Arsenal can now reveal these names to Ukraine and the world. For example, we staged the largest-ever retrospective display of Viktor Zaretsky’s works borrowed from 20 museums of Ukraine as part of the Grand Antique Salon held in early December. It was not so easy – it took almost four months to negotiate this exhibition. But these efforts were worthwhile for thousands of people to be able to discover the name of Zaretsky. Maybe, thanks to this exhibit, people understood that Ukraine is a country of immense power, which gave birth to such a phenomenon as the 1960s dissident movement. And Zaretsky’s wife Alla Horska? A Russian, she came to Ukraine, learned the Ukrainian language, and stood up for Ukrainian identity together with her friends in the profession. She was trying to break down the ‘iron curtain’ behind which even now, frankly speaking, many continue to live: it is more comfortable like this, there is no ‘draught.’”

You once managed to shape a cultural precedent out of what is known as Ukrainian Home (formerly, the Lenin Museum). You have done for the Mystetsky Arsenal in a relatively short period what others failed to do for years. What nourishes you?

“I make no analyses, I just like art, I like mingling with artists and rallying them around major art projects and, what is more, I do not need to cash in on art.

“When I worked at Ukrainian Home (before I became its director), I would visit exhibits and think: why are the crowds of people not coming to see, say, the works of Svitlytsky, Yablonska, or Shyshko? Why are these exhibits not being advertised? I was every time struck with inert and poor organization. So when I became the director of Ukrainian Home, I began conceiving my own projects. The first was a sculpture exhibit titled ‘Winter Garden.’ I was told at the time that art projects were a very difficult and loss-making thing. Then we held the first Art Kyiv. I must admit I feel a bit ashamed of it now, but at that time it seemed to be almost incredible to launch a project exclusively connected with modern art, which will be in the highlight of the public and the media. To make the project interesting for the public at large, we decided to display, as part of it, some private art collections of well-known personalities. Clearly, people rushed to see not so much art as pictures from the houses of presidents and ministers, but we thus gradually taught these people to appreciate modern art, too.”

Incidentally, the Mystetsky Arsenal was to receive some funding as part of the Euro-2012 package.

“We are still making requests to the institutions concerned – with no answer so far. Astonishingly, Ukraine is preparing no special or cultural program for Euro-2012. The first Kyiv-based international Modern Art Biennale will present a powerful cultural program. The biennale opens three weeks before the championship. Incidentally, a Western advertising company, which we usually consult, recently phoned me and complained that while they were hyping our ARSENALE, the CNN-broadcast image trailer ‘Visit Ukraine’ showed church domes, a river where children are taking a dip, and a soccer pitch – and not a single mention of culture, art, and the Mystetsky Arsenal, one of the world’s largest museums. It is art and high-profile international projects that promote, like nothing else, cultural tourism. The conclusion is that, among other things, our country lacks a high-quality horizontal communication between the ministries which only care about their own sector.

“Oleksandr Popov also promised to support the ARSENALE – all we need is that this item does not vanish from the Kyiv budget.

“Incidentally, it is very good that the city authorities have engaged the Boston Consulting Group to map out the strategy of Kyiv development until 2025. But it is equally important to think over the tactics, not only the strategy, and hire the skilled staff. As a member of the culture expert group and an individual for whom there are trifles, I must say that this strategy has certain irregularities, as far as the Mystetsky Arsenal and national and international cultural projects are concerned. There has been so much talk about a European cultural capital, but one must remember that no guests from Paris or Tokyo will come to see a culinary festival, but they will surely come to see Kyiv’s first biennale. Hundreds of articles have already been written about the ARSENALE in the world’s leading publications, such as The New York Observer, The News Week, The New York Times, The Financial Times, Flash Arte, Italian, British, and German websites. Why? Because we have come up with a cultural precedent which is interesting to the world and can redraw its cultural map. The Mystetsky Arsenal will turn into a word-level museum for two and a half months. Ukraine in the world and the world in Ukraine will be the mission of this star attraction. You know, something new always emerges at the turn of centuries and epochs, and during revolutions. Ukraine is now standing a chance to give birth to its own internationally-acclaimed avant-garde.

“Naturally, the events and museums of this scale require special patronage on the part of the state. We are now drawing support from the Ministry of Culture and the Kyiv City Administration. By the way, the main condition for the biennale is at least 40-percent governmental funding.”

What do you think will be the main art trends in the next few years?

“We are living in a super-mobile world. The political, economic, and technological situation is constantly changing. And it is just an ungrateful thing to make forecasts in art. It is difficult to plan and calculate art. If you analyze the field of art from the angle of a transient ‘fashion,’ you can, of course, say that exhibits will more and more often display digital images and, in a year or two, traditional painting will finally give way to installations and new media, portrait and battle-scene painting, the theme of labor, and the positive hero will suddenly revive, and abstraction will replace figurativeness. But these are all external factors that do not affect the essence of changes. And we can only catch the essence itself… tomorrow. But we can still try to outline the main trends and art vectors. On the one hand, art is increasingly becoming part of a philosophical outlook rather than a trade, and, on the other, technological progress provides fresh opportunities for expression in terms of art. There will be a never-ending search for new ways of expression, but the revolution of thinking is becoming the main factor of creativity.

“All I can finally forecast for the year 2012 is that on May 17 the Kyiv-based Mystetsky Arsenal will host the First Kyiv International Biennale of Modern Art. The biennale will involve (just think of it!) 110 artists from 42 (!) countries, all of them being international-level stars. As the biennale commissioner, I can promise you that the next year will be a turning point in the history of Ukrainian art. This will be a sensational project managed by David Elliott, a UK-based word-famous critic and art theoretician.

“Frankly speaking, it is difficult to say what will draw the spectators’ greatest attention and what will make the strongest impression on them in this project. On the one hand, the main exposition will contain the incredible oeuvres of the 20th- and 21st-century best-known artists, the true masterpieces of contemporary art, most of which have never been displayed in Ukraine – they have, instead, been the attraction of the world’s best-known museums and galleries. Actually, the names of participants are classified information so far, but I can disclose a few names. ARSENALE visitors will be able to see the works of Bill Viola, a leading video art figure, which have been exhibited in museums for many years; and the works of the eminent German painter Anselm Kiefer, which can also be found in the Louvre collection. Art lovers will also have an opportunity to see the works of the famous Louise Bourgeois whose sculptures, paintings, and graphics are called encyclopedia of contemporary art. Also exhibited will be the most outstanding Russian artists, which is also very significant – in spite of being territorially close to Russia, the Ukrainians quite rarely see modern Russian classical art which occupied a well-deserved place in the museums and encyclopedias of modern art long ago. The biennale’s main exposition will comprise the works of the well-known Russian and American artist Ilya Kabakov, one of the key figures in Moscow conceptualism (he works now in collaboration with Emilia Kabakova), and those of a no less known Moscow-based art group AES+F.

“At the same time, the ARSENALE’s main project will open to the interested art appreciators some new, hitherto unknown to our spectators, realms of modern art. Among the invited are artists from Albania, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and other countries not so well known on the world’s art map. I would specifically like to draw your attention to the powerful presence of Chinese artists who have been the hottest sensation in international modern art over the past few years.

“Another unique project of the biennale is a debate platform which I am sure will give a powerful impetus to the development of the national humanitarian thought. Undoubtedly, most of the ARSENALE visitors will be unable to watch the whole event, but, to sum up the activities of this elite debate club, which will involve the world’s leading art theoreticians, critics, and researchers, we will publish a book that will find a place at the bookstores of the world’s leading museums and the libraries of culture and art institutions. It is very important that the world should come to know about art renaissance in Ukraine.”

By Maria TOMAK, The Day